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I have found the following to be most important to gardening success:
Make your own compost. You don’t have to be an expert to make perfect plant food. Even if you know nothing about carbon-nitrogen ratios, and turn your pile(s) only once a year, you can make great compost by piling varied organic matter in thin layers. It’s amazing what compost can do for your plants. In June, 1989, when it was too wet anywhere in my garden to set out my tomato plants, I spread a 6-inch layer of compost over a small area, and set them right in it. Those plants were the healthiest and most prolific I’d ever grown. Carrots and onions also respond spectacularly to the same treatment.
Overcrowding plants is a common cause of failure. Thin, thin, thin! Throw away those books that tell you to plant broccoli 16 inches apart. You will get spindly plants with puny heads if you space them that closely. An apprentice at my farm once planted sweet corn seed too deep. The resulting stand was about one half as dense as I would have liked, but the roomy plants ripened better than three full-sized ears apiece! Joann and Gene have encouraged me to thin everything from sweet basil to bachelor’s buttons, bush beans to senposai, with great results. The surviving plants quickly become healthy, robust and productive! To get maximum benefits, start thinning early when your plants are small.
Get the jump on the weeds. That first cultivation when your plants are just emerging is the most important one. Time invested in weed control early in the season pays ninefold dividends in saving backbreaking labor later. Many crops such as onions and carrots have no chance in a weedy patch.
Work with the weather, not against it. Pulling weeds out of soft moist soil when the sun first comes out after a rain is so much more rewarding than trying to tug them out of dry, baked soil. Your soil and plants can teach you the optimal times to sow, cultivate, mulch and harvest. Learn to be an amateur weather prognosticator by studying clouds, wind direction, temperatures, the moon, and your barometer. It will make you a better gardener, and besides, it is fascinating. When you get good at it, you will not only be able to laugh at errant television weather “experts,” but you will also be able to get away with a high percentage of what look to outsiders to be garden gambles, but really aren’t!
Feed your soil. Heavy cropping takes an enormous toll on soil nutrients, which must be replaced if your plot is to maintain fertility. We apply animal manures, compost, and spoiled hay in liberal quantities to ensure optimal growth. If your squashes, greens, sweet corn and brassicas don’t develop deep rich foliage color, they need more nitrogen. If their foliage is streaked with purple, your plants aren’t getting enough phosphorus.
Plants need abundant water, particularly early in their growth cycle. Even in my boggy spot, I have had to water in recent years.
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